Saturday, March 30, 2013

"Bill W. and Dr. Bob" at Illusion Theater

Bill W. and Dr. Bob is the story of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, but it's also about the friendship between two men who quite literally saved each other's lives, as well the lives of countless others. It's fairly well accepted today that alcoholism is a disease, but in the 1930s when Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith began their program that became known as AA, alcoholics were just drunks who threw their lives away, to the frustration of those who cared about them. Bill and Dr. Bob were both pretty serious alcoholics, on the road to self-destruction, when a chance meeting brought them together. They began a lifelong friendship as well as a movement that has grown to over two million members.

The play begins and ends as an AA meeting ("Hello, my name is Bill W., and I'm an alcoholic"). Bill and Dr. Bob tell their stories, and we flash back to watch their lives play out. Before they meet, the two men lead parallel lives. Both are successful professionals from Vermont whose lives and careers are damaged by drinking, and both have supportive but frustrated wives who suffer because of their husbands' habits. The first act of the play shows us these parallel lives, as similar scenes are played out on opposite sides of the stage in each man's life. The women beg their husbands to quit drinking, they promise to do so, and then go back to their self-destructive ways. Both become involved with a Christian movement called The Oxford Group. With the group's help, Bill is able to stop drinking, but Dr. Bob is a reluctant attendee of the meetings, dragged there by his wife. Bill travels to Akron Ohio on business, and when that business fails, he feels a relapse coming. He reaches out to the local Oxford Group, and is eventually introduced to Dr. Bob. The first act ends with a powerful scene of the two men sharing their similar stories and listening to each other. In the play's second act, Bill moves in with Bob and his wife and helps him get sober. They then decide to try their method on others, and scour Akron for an appropriate drunk. After several failed attempts, they achieve success, and a movement is born. The key to the solution is "talking to another drunk," sharing one's personal experience with someone who understands. Simple really; isn't that what everyone wants, alcoholic or not?

Jim Cunningham and Stephen D'Ambrose
as Bill W. and Dr. Bob
The fantastic six-person cast is led by Jim Cunningham and Stephen D'Ambrose as the title characters. Jim is very charismatic as the determined Bill; it's one of those performances that ceases to feel like a performance by the end of the play - he is Bill. Stephen is appropriately crotchety as Dr. Bob, who finally opens up to Bill, this stranger he's just met. Bill and Bob make a great team, as do Jim and Stephen. As the wives of these two men, Carolyn Pool and Laura Esping illustrate the destructive nature of the disease in terms of family. Your heart breaks for them as they try to help the men they love and can no longer recognize. Rounding out the cast are Kate Guentzel and Michael Paul Levin playing every other character in the world of the play. Kate has some humorous and entertaining moments as everyone from a barmaid to the leader of the Oxford Group. I lost count of how many characters Michael plays, each a distinct character with a different accent and wardrobe, often with a quick change in between.

A really nice feature of this production is the music. Roberta Carlson plays piano between and during scenes, reminiscent of when they used to have piano players in movie theaters. It's not a necessary thing, they could have played recorded music during scene transitions as is often done, but it's a nice touch. Live music makes everything better.

Unfortunately I caught this one at the end of its run - it closes tonight, so if you haven't seen it yet you have one more chance. (Unless you live near Blue Earth, Brainerd, or Fergus Falls, then you can still catch it on tour in April.) I've only recently discovered Illusion Theater, but I have not been disappointed by anything I've seen there. If you missed this one, their next play is another story of an American pioneer - chef James Beard in I Love to Eat: A Love Story with Food.

"Kingdom Undone" by Theater for the Thirsty at Southern Theater

Kingdom Undone is a new passion play - a dramatization of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, the pivotal event in the Christian tradition. It's a familiar story to those of us who grew up in the tradition (and a timely one, as many are celebrating Easter this weekend). Kingdom Undone stays true to that tradition, but this new adaptation by Jeremiah Gamble feels fresh and modern, with moments of humor, music (written by husband and wife team Jeremiah and Vanessa Gamble, aka Theater for the Thirsty), and a lighter touch, despite the obvious darkness in the story. I found it to be entertaining and well done; it moved even this neo-Pagan-Unitarian-Universalist-Yogi. It's a powerful story; there's a reason that it has moved many over the centuries and inspired a movement. It's also a story that has been contorted, abused, and used, but when it serves to inspire, uplift, and perhaps help one to be a better and kinder person, that's when the story is at its best.

When I saw the promotional materials for Kingdom Undone (it premiered last year, with the current remount ending this weekend), I assumed that the central figure in the image was Jesus. Not so, it's Dustin Bronson's very charismatic and sympathetic Judas, infamous as the man who betrayed his teacher for 40 pieces of silver. This play, in a way, is the story of Judas and his relationship with Jesus and his teachings. Unfortunately he has a very literal interpretation of Jesus' stories about the coming of a kingdom. One wishes someone would play the part of Nabalungi's friend in that other great theater piece about faith, The Book of Mormon, who tells her "it's a metaphor, we're not really going to Salt Lake City." But Judas believes that Jesus will literally call down armies of angels to overthrow the Romans, and thinks that he's playing his part in the plan when he turns Jesus over to be tried, and eventually crucified. He's devastated when he realizes that this is no political game.

Highlights of the show include:
  • The creators of the piece also play central roles. Jeremiah plays Jesus as a calm, loving, and somewhat conflicted leader. Vanessa is Magdalena, a spirited and loyal follower, and lends her beautiful voice to the music (see also I am Anne Frank). Janet Hanson plays Mary, mother of Jesus, as a spunky redhead, a very human woman in a nice contrast to that untouchable otherwordly image often seen. She lets out a gut-wrenching, primal scream at the death of her son that cuts right to the heart. Nicholas Leeman provides some comic relief as the good-natured but slightly clueless disciple James. The rest of the large ensemble ably fill in all the roles in the story, from followers to soldiers.
  • The music is great and is used sparingly to add to the story (this isn't Jesus the musical, that's already been done). I especially liked the hopeful opening number, which was repeated at the end. Michael Pearce Donley directs the five-piece band, which includes an upright bass and violin, and sounds lovely. There's some nice choreography, both fighting and dancing. Especially lovely is when an angel (Kelli Warder) visits Jesus in his darkest hour and physically and spiritually lifts him up.
  • The stage at the Southern looks gorgeous, as usual. It's a perfect setting for this story, regal and historic, filled with colored lanterns and brightly patterned fabric, like the amazing technicolor dreamcurtain (set design by Jeremy Barnett). The costumes (by Nadine Grant) are a shabby-chic mix of modern and ancient. Audience member seated on the floor of the stage looked, to my vantage point in the theater seats, like a part of the story - more followers or citizens of Jerusalem witnessing the events of the story.
Kingdom Undone is a well-done new adaptation of a familiar story, one that's well-acted, colorful, musical, and uplifting.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

March Musical Madness!

Apparently there's some sort of sports tournament this month that's making everyone want to rank things in the form of brackets. I don't really get it, but when I saw this floating around the internet, I couldn't resist. 64 musicals are entered into this bracket, with many many one-on-one comparisons resulting in one musical theater winner. (Click on the bracket above to enlarge it.)

My method for filling this out was not to pick the "better" or "best" musical, because who am I to judge that? And with such diversity, from Oklahoma! to Book of Mormon, many comparisons are like apples to oranges. Instead, I chose the musicals that I enjoy the most, or that have meant the most to me, or that I see as important in musical theater history. I'm sure there are as many different results as there are people who fill this out. If this looks like fun to you, you can get a blank bracket here and fill it out yourself.

A few notes on some of the comparisons:
  • Of the 64 musicals listed, there are 12 I have not seen on stage or screen (marked with a question mark). In those cases I chose the musical I have seen. I concede that those are uninformed decisions, and I may change my mind if and when I see those remaining 12.
  • Anyone who knows me will not be surprised that RENT ended up as my ultimate winner. I'm not saying that RENT is the best musical ever written, but it's the one that's meant the most to me in my life, and continues to mean the most to me. When I first saw RENT on the Tonys in 1996 (where it won four awards, including best musical, book, and score), and then live on stage in 1997, I was fresh out of college, living on my own for the first time, going to grad school, with no car (literally "riding my bike midday past the three piece suits"), and it really struck a chord with me. I've seen it 13 times total, could sing the entire soundtrack, and will go see it any opportunity I get.
  • Sound of Music ranked pretty high for me for mostly sentimental reasons. I've loved the movie since I was a kid, it was one of the two musicals for which I played in the pit orchestra in high school, and I studied abroad in Salzburg for a semester in college. Watching the movie is very nostalgic for me on many levels. But still, it lost out to...
  • Wicked, which is one of those rare musicals that is both a huge success (it's been playing on Broadway for nine years and counting) and is actually really good. It's probably my favorite soundtrack to sing along with in my car.
  • West Side Story is another of my favorite musical movies, but the reason it went all the way to the final battle is because of its place in musical theater history. Firstly, it's a collaboration of four giants in the music-theater-dance world - Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Leonard Berstein (music), Jerome Robbins (choreography), and Arthur Laurents (director). The choreography is iconic and the music has become part of our popular culture. That's the reason it took out Book of Mormon (really unfair of to put them head to head in the first round), Next to Normal (which I think is one of the best musicals written in this century), and ...
  • Hair. I love Hair, for itself and for its place in musical theater history. It's the first Broadway musical that reflected what was actually happening in the world right outside the theater. It may seem pretty safe today, but they were burning draft cards on stage in 1968, not to mention the drug use, nudity, and interracial relationships (shortly after the landmark Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia). And it's another one where the music crossed over from the musical theater world into pop culture.
  • For someone who often complains about jukebox musicals, Jersey Boys ranked pretty high on my bracket. Partly it's because of lack of competition, but I also think it's the exception that proves the rule. The clever book tells the story of the real musicians and their rise to and fall from fame, instead of some silly made up story to fit awkwardly into the songs.
I could go on and on, but it's Survivor night, so I'll leave it at that. Please comment below if you agree or disagree about a particular match-up!

2014 Update:
Of the 12 musicals I hadn't seen last year, I have seen one of them since - Phantom of the Opera. And I would still rank Oklahoma above it. Although after seeing a magical production of The Music Man by Ten Thousand Things recently, I would rank it above Oklahoma.

2015 Update:
Of the 11 musicals I hadn't seen last year, I have seen two of them since - Oliver! and Pippin. (And I plan to see two more this year - Damn Yankees at the Ordway and Carousel at Bloomington Civic Theatre.) As much as I loved Pippin, no way I'm ranking it above Hair. Oliver! vs. Billy Elliot is a bit tougher, I might have to say Oliver! because of the many familiar songs. In fact I may have to rethink that whole section in light of BCT's delightful production of Guys and Dolls last year. This bracket might look a little different if I filled it out today.

2016 Update:
Here it is, March again, and my CBS soaps are preempted. Must mean it's time to update this bracket. As I mentioned last year, I have checked off two more of those original unknown twelve, Damn Yankees and Carousel. And even though I enjoyed them both, I've still got to give it to The Full Monty (so fun!) and Company (probably my favorite Sondheim). The bracket is still available (although I wish they'd update it with new entries - hello Hamilton!) if you want to play along!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"Bohemian Flats" at nimbus theatre

The chance to experience a new theater and learn about Minnesota history? I'm in! Last night I attended my first play at nimbus theatre in Northeast Minneapolis (I really wanted to see their production of The Cripple of Inishmaan last fall after seeing A Behanding in Spokane by the same playwright, Martin McDonagh, but didn't quite make it). I love checking out new theater spaces, and in this case an unassuming exterior leads to a quite nice space inside. Their current production is the new original play Bohemian Flats, written and directed by Co-Artistic Director Liz Neerland, about the life of immigrants living in a Minneapolis community of that name in the late 19th and early 20th century. Bohemian Flats was located on the west bank of the Mississippi, at the site of what is now the Washington Avenue bridge. Residents built their own little wooden houses, and those on the lower levels moved out every spring when the river rose. The city of Minneapolis eventually cleared out the flats in the name of progress, but the community lives on in this play which is less of a cohesive story and more of a series of vignettes about life in the flats throughout its 60-year history. More globally, it's a common story of our immigrant ancestors who came to this country to make a better life for themselves and their families.

the cast of Bohemian Flats
The play opens in the 1930s with a man who has lived in the flats for 50 years, in the house his father-in-law built. He reminisces about the people who lived in the once busy community (it housed a church and a saloon, two things every town needs), and the good times and bad they experienced. The drab little wooden shanties soon come to life with flowers and people, and we see scenes of weddings, tragedies (the 1878 explosion at the Washburn A. Mill, where many of the residents worked), arriving immigrants, and community life. Several scenes include immigrants reading letters from family members left behind in the old country, or writing to them of their new life in America. The eight-member ensemble ably brings these many characters to life. I found myself looking for a little more follow-up on some of the stories (did the woman's son survive the mill explosion? did the young girl ever make it out of the flats?), or a return to the man from the beginning of the play for some sort of closure. There's no one thread to follow through the play, no one person to grab on to and become emotionally invested in as you follow their story. Still, the play effectively brings the audience into the world of Bohemian Flats, a unique community on the very shore of the river, but with a universal story of the immigrant life.

Helping to create this world are the set (by Brian Hesser, also one of the ensemble members) and costumes (by Andrea M. Gross). Walking into the theater space at Nimbus, I was immediately charmed by the rustic shanty town on stage, which later blossoms with life as flower beds and other decorations are added. The costumes reflect a plain, hard-working people, with people from "up in the city" differentiated by their somewhat more distinguished clothing.

Bohemian Flats is playing now through April 7 at nimbus theatre. Check it out for an entertaining lesson on local history.

a historical photo of the community know as Bohemian Flats

a historical photo of the community know as Bohemian Flats

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"Black Grace" at the Ordway Center

My favorite artistic exports from New Zealand are the Lord of the Rings movies and the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords (this combines them both). But after having seen Black Grace, New Zealand's leading contemporary dance company, as part of the Ordway's World Music and Dance Series, I have a new appreciation for this small southern country's artistry and culture. Black Grace features dancers of Maori and Pacific island descent, and combines dances from traditional Pacific cultures with modern dance. The result is something quite extraordinary to behold - athletic, powerful, graceful, fast, precise, energetic, and really quite cool.

Black Grace consists of twelve dancers, only four of them women, but at times it seemed like twice that (I think the women worked twice as hard, as usual, because it seemed to me that there was a gender balance). They presented three pieces, all choreographed by the company's founder, Neil Ieremia, who also answered questions in a talk-back after the performance. The first dance featured traditional Samoan "slap dancing," which Neil accurately described as a "sonic picture." It was a rhythmic, percussive dance. The second was more fluid, with the dancers all dressed in red. After an intermission, the dancers performed an epic piece called Vaka. A note in the program explains:
During this creative process we have realized that we are our own vaka (canoe) carrying our values and belief systems, experiences and memories good and bad, and a hope that when we leave this planet we leave it in a better shape than when we found it.
As I understand it, after listening to Neil speak after the show, it's a piece about the history of New Zealand as it deals with the immigrant experience (which shares similarities to our own immigrant nation), as well as the larger collective history of humanity (Neil mentioned being inspired by the book An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin). I'm not sure I would have gotten all of that out of the dance, but it was an epic journey. The dancers started out in black costumes, which changed to lighter gray and white, and then to street clothes by the end. Video projections showed gorgeous scenes of New Zealand, as well as a section of news highlights from around the world. The lighting created shadows for the dancers to move in and out of, as they leapt, ran, and otherwise moved around the huge bare stage of the Ordway. I don't know much about dance so I can't speak more intelligently about it, other than to say I was intrigued, moved, awed, confused, and entertained.

I believe this is the first event of the Ordway's World Music and Dance Series that I've attended. I'm going to pay more attention to events in the future; it's a great way to experience the culture and art from another corner of the planet, without traveling too far from home.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Spunk" at Penumbra Theatre

Great news, my theater-loving friends - Penumbra is back!! One of the nation's top African-American theater companies (they've produced more August Wilson plays than anyone else), which also happens to be one of the Twin Cities best theaters, closed their doors last fall due to a financial crisis. After some serious fundraising and support from over 1400 individuals, corporations, and foundations, they've been able to resume their business of telling good stories well. First up: Spunk, an adaptation of three short stories by Zora Neale Hurston (most famous for writing the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God). The three stories are woven together by music, in the key of the blues. The incomparable Jevetta Steele is the singing storyteller, accompanied by the smooth Dennis Spears as the guitar man. They narrate the stories as the four "folk" act them out. It's a mostly happy, uplifting, celebratory show, but with a little bit of the heartbreak of the hard-working African-American communities Hurston brought to life in her work. One of the pieces takes place in Harlem, the other two in the hot Florida summer, and the heat coming off the stage almost makes one forget that winter still has its hold on us here in the frozen Midwest.

the happy (?) couple (Austene Van and Keith Jamal Downing)
The first story is the darkest - a washerwoman (the busy and talented Austene Van) with a snake of a husband (an imposing Keith Jamal Downing), until his bad karma comes back to bite him (literally). The second story is the lightest - two pimps (i.e., gigolos, hilariously played by T. Mychael Rambo and Mikell Sapp in bright-colored pin-striped suits) vie for the attention of a fancy lady who wants nothing to do with them. The last story is both hard and hopeful - a seemingly happy couple hits a road block and then tries to make their way back to each other. Austene and Keith again play the couple, and their journey from sweetness and love, to distance, to tentative connection is a pleasure to watch.

Jevetta Steel espeaks the blues
The original music (by Chic Street Man, from the original 1989 production) is as integral to Spunk as its characters. The narrators sing between and during the stories (I particularly enjoyed a playful duet between scenes), and the characters also sing for themselves. I wouldn't call it a musical, but the music comes out of the emotions of the scene in an organic way. There isn't really structured dancing, but there's a definite sense of movement with the music and emotions (Patdro Harris directs and choreographs). The costumes (by Amanda McGee) are fun and colorful (Jevetta steals the show in purple layers and fur). The multi-leveled rustic set (by C. Lance Brockman) makes clever use of the space.

Spunk is a great comeback for Penumbra. Fun, playful, real, with great music and a lot of heart. If you've never visited their lovely space in St. Paul, I highly recommend you check it out, starting with this show. Spunk plays now through April 7 - exchange your winter blues for a much more satisfying kind of blues.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

"Spamalot" at the Orpheum Theatre

Before there was The Book of Mormon, there was Spamalot. A hilariously irreverent musical that makes fun of the form while staying true to it, to great critical and audience acclaim. Spamalot is great fun, but it doesn't have the joyous heart that shines through the profanity of The Book of Mormon. I saw Spamalot on Broadway in 2005, when it won the Tony for best musical over another multi-nominated original musical, The Light in the Piazza. I saw Theater Latte Da's gorgeous production of The Light in the Piazza just a few nights ago, and the two really don't even compare. I don't think Spamalot will go down in the history books as one of the best musicals of its time, but I'm certain Light in the Piazza will. No matter, Spamalot isn't trying to be anything profound, just entertain its audience. And that it did with rousing success. This national tour by Pheonix Entertainment make a quick stop in Minneapolis for three performances in two days, so if you missed it, you're out of luck. Go see The Light in the Piazza instead.

Since I've got another matinee tomorrow, let me get right to the point:
  • Unlike me, you're probably familiar with the British comedy troupe Monty Python, from its late 60s/early 70s BBC show and movies such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Life of Brian. One of the Pythons, Eric Idle, translated many of Monty Python's famous skits and scenes into a musical (with John Du Prez assisting with the music). The plot is loosely the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, with much silliness thrown in (a little like a warped musical comedy version of The Game of Thrones, only without the dragons and nudity). King Arthur is given the sword Excaliber by the Lady of the Lake, travels around England (not Finland) to build an army of knights, and is told to find a grail. And since this is a musical, he does find the grail, and the show ends with a wedding.
  • Spamalot includes nods to several musicals (from West Side Story to Fiddler on the Roof), as well as musical theater standards like glorious duets and grand divas. One of Arthur's quests is to put on a Broadway musical, which is difficult because that's something that happens a thousand years in the future in a country that hasn't been discovered yet. Spamalot is definitely in on its own joke.
  • Several members of the hard-working cast turn in great performances in one or more roles. The appropriately named Arthur Rowan is a goodly King Arthur, who is perhaps not the best ruler or fighter, but whose heart is in the right place. Glenn Giron amuses as Arthur's loyal servant Patsy, who works the coconuts. My favorite knight is the not-so-brave Sir Robin, with an engaging performance by Kasidy Devlin in this and several other roles. The award for best performance in multiple diverse roles goes to Adam Grabau as: Sir Lancelot (who turns into The Boy from Oz), the French Taunter (performing some really fantastic raspberries, as well as delivering the classic line "I fart in your general direction"), and the taller than life Knight who says Ni.
  • As the Lady of the Lake, Abigail Raye does her best in this role that demands incredible vocals as well as comedic talent, but doesn't quite live up to the Tony-winning performance of the divine Sara Ramirez. But that's really an unfair comparison; there's a reason Sara won a Tony. I was fortunate enough to see her incomparable performance, and she has that rare talent to sing comedically while still sounding truly amazing. With apologies to Ms. Raye, Sara will always be my Lady of the Lake (check her out on Grey's Anatomy, where they occasionally allow her to sing).
  • The sets and costumes are pretty impressive for a tour that only stays in one place a night or two. The songs are fun and catchy, and the dance numbers splendid.
  • One element of this production that gets a big thumbs down from me is the use of recorded music. When I looked into the pit at intermission (which I love to do, as a former pit member), I saw four brass instruments, a keyboard, and several large pieces of electronic equipment with flashing lights and buttons hooked up to a laptop. I understand that touring with a full orchestra may be impractical and expensive (tours often employ local musicians to fill out the pit), especially a tour that moves as much as this one, but I would happily have traded in a few sequined costumes or trees in the very expensive forest for a woodwind player or percussionist. I was sitting a few rows back from the stage, and I could definitely hear a difference. The thin sounding recorded music made it seem a little like Broadway karaoke. I recently read this, and while I'm not suggesting that this tour is anything like the torture this person describes, it concerns me. 
  • Sorry to be a downer, let's all just look on the bright side of life! Spamalot definitely left me with a smile on my face.

the Knights of the Round Table

"The Light in the Piazza" by Theater Latte Da at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

Theater Latte Da's new production of The Light in the Piazza is an absolute dream of a musical. From the moment the first chord was struck by the five-piece onstage orchestra, it cast a spell on me from which I hoped I would never awaken. The 2005 multiple Tony-winning musical* features a stunningly gorgeous score (written by Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers of Rodgers and Hammerstein), and a beautifully romantic story, with a twist. Theater Latte Da's production is fairly straight-forward and simple, allowing the beauty of the piece to shine through. Even though it's a new musical, there something about it that feels classic and timeless. I was moved to tears on several occasions by the music, brought to vivid life by the talented ensemble of musicians and actors.

Light in the Piazza is based on a novella of the same name, and tells the story of a woman named Margaret and her daughter Clara travelling to Italy in the 1950s, a place Margaret hasn't visited since her honeymoon with her now-distant (geographically and emotionally) husband. Clara meets a local boy named Fabrizio and falls in love. Margaret has dedicated her life to protecting her daughter, for reasons that become clear as the story unfolds, but begins to see that perhaps it's time to let Clara grow up in her own way. We also meet Fabrizio's complicated family. This is a story about many kinds of love, Clara and Fabrizio's innocent and sweet new love, the complicated love of several married couples, and perhaps most touching of all, the love between a mother and daughter whose lives have revolved around each other for years.

young lovers Fabrizio and Clara
(Aleks Knezevich and Jessica Fredrickson)
photo by Michal Daniel
In characteristic Latte Da style the show is perfectly cast. Jessica Fredrickson's lovely voice is perfectly suited to Clara, and she brings a charming innocence to the character. Kathleen Humphrey creates a complex and layered character in Margaret; her struggles to do right by her daughter are heart-breakingly evident in her face. Aleks Knezevich is charming as the young and in love Fabrizio, and his gorgeous voice almost made me forget that Matthew Morrison originated the role on Broadway. Jessica and Aleks have a believable and beautiful chemistry, not surprising since they are engaged in real life (could they be any cuter?), and they sound incredible together on these sweeping love songs. Everyone in the small ensemble is great in their multiple roles, as they populate the city of Florence with any number of characters strolling through the piazza, often speaking in Italian. Standouts include Erin Capello as Fabrizio's unhappy and jaded sister-in-law Franca, in stark contrast to the naive Clara, and Bill Scharpen as Fabrizio's elegant father who spends a lot of time with Margaret as their children are getting to know one another.

The music of The Light in the Piazza is something quite special. I remember reading that Adam Guettel first composes all of the music, then goes back and adds lyrics where necessary. Several of the songs are sung party or entirely in Italian, and unlike at the opera, there is no English translation available. But with music this emotional and expressive, you don't need to know exactly what Fabrizio is saying in "Il Mondo Era Vuoto" to understand what he's feeling. Some of the singing is neither English nor Italian, just a wordless singing that is pure musical expression, as in the touching love song "Say It Somehow." Fabrizio and Clara don't speak the same language, but somehow they understand each other. Similarly, the audience doesn't need to have the words spelled out to understand the emotion of the scene. The five-piece orchestra (directed by Denise Prosek) is much smaller that the original Broadway production; it has been stripped down to the essentials - piano, violin, cello, bass, and harp (harp!). In the intimate space of the Ordway McKnight Theatre, it's just right.

Clara and her mother in Florence
(Jessica Fredrickson and Kathleen Humphrey)
photo by Michal Daniel
The stage of the McKnight Theatre has been transformed into a picturesque representation of the Italian city of Florence by scenic designer Rick Polenek. Two dimensional cardboard cutouts of famous buildings and statues stand in the background, moved around by ensemble members. They almost look like illustrations in a book, which adds to the feeling that we're inside a fairy tale. The costumes (by Rich Hamson) are pure perfection. The women wear a parade of 50s style dresses, complete with full skirts with tulle, and matching hats, gloves, shoes, and purses. The men are in smart suits with hats. The showpiece is Clara's perfectly lovely tea-length wedding dress (spoiler alert), and the final scene is like a beautiful painting.

As Margaret sings in the final number, love may be a "Fable," but The Light in the Piazza makes you believe. It's a wistful, dreamy, romantic fairy tale. But it's not all sweetness and light, there's enough harsh reality to keep you grounded. It's a fitting conclusion to what has been another wonderful season for Peter Rothstein and Theater Latte Da. It began with Sondheim's Company last fall, which, despite being 40 years old, felt like a contemporary and often cynical look at modern marriage. Then came Aida, a big spectacular Broadway-style rock musical. The Light in the Piazza is a gorgeous new musical that feels like a classic. This season has displayed a really nice variety that showcases Latte Da's talent at bringing musical theater to life.

Go see this gorgeous new classic, playing now through April 7, and like me, you will leave the theater singing, "now is... I am... happiness!"

*Light in the Piazza won six Tony Awards in 2005 (including best score), but was beat out for best musical by Spamalot, which I'm coincidentally seeing today. (Update: Spamalot is great fun, but doesn't compare to beauty of this piece.)

Friday, March 15, 2013

"Elemeno Pea" at Mixed Blood Theatre

Elemeno Pea is a new play making its regional debut at Mixed Blood Theatre. It's a hilarious dark comedy, but like most of Mixed Blood's work, it runs a little deeper than that. It touches on issues of class, obscene wealth, family, and relationships. All of the characters are distinctly drawn by playwright Molly Smith Metzler and brilliantly brought to life by this cast of five. It's fast, sharp, and engrossing; the 95 minutes fly by as we get a real time look at one afternoon in these people's lives. And the title? It refers to a childhood trauma for one of the characters, who spent years thinking that LMNOP was one letter (say it fast, like in the song), and from that learned that things aren't always what we think they are.

Simone and Devon are sisters who grew up poor in Buffalo. Simone is now a highly paid assistant to a wealthy couple, and invites Devon for a weekend at the family estate in Martha's Vineyard. The only other person there is the groundskeeper Jose, whom the family calls Jos-B to differentiate him from their other employee, Jos-A. Michaela and Peter are supposed to be flying back to NYC, but Michaela shows up, nearly hysterical after Peter left her on the side of the road. She wants Devon to leave so that she and Simone can work all of this out, but Devon refuses to abandon her sister bonding weekend. Soon Peter's friend Ethan drops by, who also happens to be Simone's boyfriend. He and Michaela fight about Peter in front of Devon as if she's not even there. We eventually find out what's causing the rift between Michaela and Peter, and it's a devastating revelation. Through it all these five people argue, cajole, and joke, all of them exasperating at times but always very human.

Here's what LMNOP means to me:
Laughter: if you have a funny bone, this play will surely tickle it repeatedly. 
Moving: several characters share some very personal and heart-felt truths that will make you like them more than you want to. 
Nasty: pretty much everyone is mean and nasty to someone else at some point in the play, whether it's Jos-B talking about his employers behind their backs, or Michaela's rudeness towards Devon, or Simone's reaction to Michaela's crisis. 
Outstanding cast: there is not a weak link in this five-person cast. Michaela seems shallow on the surface, but Laurine Price gives her depth and vulnerability. Grace Gealey is cool and hip as the aspiring Simone, and makes her choices seem right in character. Sun Mee Chomet is funny and entertaining as the fish-out-of-water Devon, but with her own depth of feeling and compassion. Ron Menzel completely commits to the born-with-a-silver-spoon-in-his-mouth Ethan, the one character devoid of depth, but all the more entertaining for it. Last but not least, Pedro Bayon provides much comic relief as the two-faced Jos-B, cursing his employers behind their backs while showering Michaela with artificial sweetness. Maybe it's because this is the end of the run, but the cast (directed by Mark Valdez) has gelled very well. 
Pretentious: the rich people in this play fulfill just about every obnoxious stereotype of the super rich, but none more so than Ethan, who uses those annoying shortened words like "sich," "deets," and "convo" with no sense of irony, named his boats after himself, and complains that he didn't get to have his nap today.

I must also mention the beautiful and rich-looking set (by Richard Borgen), looking every much the cool beach-side guesthouse. But the best part is the sliding glass door to the patio, which we're told is sound-proof, allowing for several hilarious mimed arguments outside as the main action continues inside.

The show closes this weekend, so make your reservations now, or take a chance with Mixed Blood's "Radical Hospitality" program, in which you can get in for free if there are seats available. With this and other programs, Mixed Blood Theatre does a great job supporting their mission of pluralism, both in the audience and in the cast and crew. Through their productions and programs they strive for, and achieve, diversity in race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and physical ability, more so than any other theater I know. I've attended some post-show discussions, and they're among the best at really getting down to the issues in the play and engaging the audience in a great discussion. And they do good, entertaining, thought-provoking work, too. Check them out if you haven't yet.

sisters Simone (Grace Gealey) and Devon (Sun Mee Chomet)
with the boss lady Michaela (Laurine Price)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Compulsion or the House Behind" by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Hillcrest Center Theater

Compulsion or the House Behind tells the story of a man obsessed with Anne Frank's story, and making sure her story was heard throughout the world. I've been on a bit of an Anne Frank journey myself recently, although a little less obsessively. Last fall I saw Yellow Tree Theatre's moving production of The Diary of Anne Frank, based on the 1997 revision of the original 1955 play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (more on that a bit later). After seeing the play I was compelled to read the book, and was struck by what a normal teenager Anne was, despite the unthinkable situation she found herself in, as well as how she was able to keep her faith in the goodness of the universe. Earlier this year Nautilus Music-Theater presented a beautiful musical rendition of the diary, I Am Anne Frank, which adds another layer of richness to the story in a way that only music can. Compulsion or the House Behind by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company adds yet another layer to the complicated story. Or rather, the story of how this simple diary became the legend that we know today.

Compulsion or the House Behind is a new play by Rinne Groff (the 2010 Public Theater production starred Mandy Patinkin, whom I adore) based on the life of Jewish American writer Meyer Levin. He traveled to Europe at the end of WWII and witnessed the liberation of the concentration camps, which began his obsession with getting the story of the Holocaust told. But he felt that the best person to tell the story was someone who had lived it; "from among themselves a teller must arise." When his wife gave him a French language translation of Anne Frank's diary, he knew he had found the teller. He worked with Anne's father, Otto Frank, to get the diary published in English in 1952, and wrote the New York Times review of the book. He had a verbal agreement with Frank and the publishers to write the stage adaptation, but his version was ultimately rejected in favor of the version written by Goodrich and Hackett. Their version downplayed Anne's Judaism and stressed the universality of the story, in order to make it more accessible to a wider audience (typical Broadway - compromise to sell more tickets). And it worked; the play won the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize and became a huge hit that's still being produced today. Unfortunately Levin's version, which is more a story of the Jewish people and their survival, cannot be bought or produced due to an agreement he signed after a prolonged legal battle. But despite this settlement, Levin could never let Anne go; it became a lifelong obsession.

Mr. (Mark Benninghofen) and Mrs. (Bethany Ford) Silver
In the play, Meyer Levin is represented by Sid Silver, beautifully portrayed by Mark Benninghofen, capturing his early enthusiasm and naivete, through his later obsession, aggression, and delusion. Bethany Ford wonderfully creates two distinct characters (with the aid of her beautiful period costumes by Lisa Conley) - a young publisher named Miss Mermin, who is first Sid's supporter and then his adversary, and Sid's supportive French wife, who eventually demands that he drop the lawsuits and let go of Anne, for the sake of their family. Matt Rein ably plays all of the other characters - various lawyers and publishers in Sid's way (as one woman in the post-show discussion told him, "you were such an idiot!"), as well as Sid's friend in Israel who helped him (illegally) produce the play years later. With the multiple characters, there are a few winking comments of "you look familiar" or "you remind me of someone." An audience is often asked to accept one actor portraying several different characters, so I appreciate the acknowledgment of this suspension of disbelief.

Sid (Mark Benninghofen) and his beloved Anne
The tight three-person cast works well together (directed by Hayley Finn), but there's another very important person onstage. Anne herself is represented by a marionette and appears to both Sid and his wife, as if in a dream. She's adorable and incredibly expressive (designed by Chris Lutter-Gardella) and really is like a fourth actor in the play. Like all marionettes, she's so lifelike, and slightly creepy because of that. You can see the strings, and the person pulling the strings (very artfully done by Janaki Ranpura), but the puppet seems to have a life and feelings of its own. Particularly effective is the scene in which Anne shows up in the Silvers' bed and speaks to Mrs. Silver, in the voice of a sleeping Mr. Silver. It's a very clever device by the playwright to bring Anne into the story and let her voice be heard.

One of the great things about this play is that it raises questions but doesn't offer easy answers. No character is all bad or good. As an audience member, I definitely sympathized with Sid and wanted things to go his way, but also found myself frustrated at some of his actions. This is a complex portrait of a man whose good intentions to make an important story heard became an unhealthy obsession, believing he was the only person who could tell that story. But the truth is Anne's story didn't belong to him, it didn't belong to Goodrich and Hacket, it didn't even belong to Otto Frank. It's Anne's alone, which she left behind for each of us to experience in our own way. In the post-show discussion the day I attended, one audience member, who had worked with Holocaust survivors, very eloquently spoke about how the horror of the Holocaust is something that's difficult for those of us who haven't lived through it to comprehend. That level of cruelty is so far beyond what most of us can even imagine that it's difficult to wrap our minds around it. Maybe that's why Anne's story is so popular. She struggled to understand it herself, and she was living it. Anne gives us a tiny window into that horrific world, one simple story that we can grasp and put a face on the faceless and nameless millions.
It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.
Compulsion or the House Behind is playing for two more weekends at the Hillcrest Center on Ford Parkway in St. Paul. It's a fascinating, compelling, and thought-provoking look at the story behind a very familiar story.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

"Yellow Fever" by Mu Performing Arts at the Guthrie Theater

Thirty years after its debut, Rick Shiomi's play Yellow Fever is being produced in the Guthrie Studio Theater, as part of Rick's final year as Artistic Director of Mu Performing Arts, one of the largest Asian-American theater companies in the country (the multi-talented Randy Reyes will be taking over as Artistic Director at the end of this season). Yellow Fever is part classic noir detective story, and part exploration of racism in Canada a few decades after the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II. It's like a Japanese-Canadian version of Guy Noir, Private Eye, but with more serious undertones behind the mystery, drama, and romance. And like many crime/mystery TV shows, the actual mystery is less interesting than how the characters go about solving it and their interaction along the way, as well as the implications of the truth that eventually comes out.

The setting: March 1973, Powell Street in Vancouver. Sam Shikaze, P.I., is the main character and narrator of this tale - divorced, middle-aged, a loner and workaholic. He spends most of his time in his shabby office, helping out the locals, and in Rosie's tea shop. When the newly crowned Cherry Blossom Queen is kidnapped, he's on the case, and soon learns that it's more than just a simple kidnapping. Helping him out is his old buddy Chuck Chan, a suave downtown lawyer in beautiful suits, and spunky reporter Nancy Wing. Sam's frenemy, police Captain Kadota (Sam flunked out of the academy and stayed in the neighborhood, while Kadota moved out and up) and a couple of crooked cops complete the characters in this distinctly drawn universe.

Sam Shikaze, P.I. (Kurt Kwan) with
girl reporter Nancy Wing (Sara Ochs)
This strong cast is led by Kurt Kwan, who perfectly portrays the classic noir detective in all his world-weariness. Sara Ochs is delightful as Nancy, a strong independent woman who tries to break through Sam's tough veneer, and Alex Galick is charming as the smooth player Chuck. Wade A. Vaughn, star of last year's Ivey-winning Compleat Female Stage Beauty, is completely unrecognizable as the elderly Japanese expert Goldberg. But as Superintendent Jameson, leader of the Sons of the Western Guard (Canada's version of the KKK), he has that familiar compelling stage presence.

The set (by Joseph Stanley) and lighting (by Karin Olson) do wonders in creating the 1970s noir feeling. Sam's sparse office is detailed and authentic, and Rosie's tea shop looks homey and comforting. Lighting changes signify time of day or mood, whether it's streetlights shining through the blinds, or the lowered lighting every time Sam does his noir-ish narration.

Yellow Fever works on several levels - as an entertaining homage to noir detective stories of old, complete with clever witty lines and those classic characters. But it also explores the effects of Japanese interment that wasn't that long ago in our history, and extended beyond the U.S. to our neighbors in the north (a fact previously unbeknownst to me). It's what Mu does best - Asian-American (or Canadian, in this case) theater that appeals to everyone because it's really about our shared history and experience. There are many reasons to go to the Guthrie right now, and Yellow Fever is one of them.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

"The Taming of the Shrew" and "Twelfth Night" by Propeller Theatre Company at the Guthrie Theater

"If music be the food of love, play on!" So begin's Twelfth Night, the second Shakespeare comedy I saw this week. And to that I add - if Propeller Theatre Company be the spirit of Shakespeare, play on! As I've mentioned before, I sometimes have a hard time with Shakespeare, finding it difficult to get inside the language to where the story lives. But after this week I feel I have a new appreciation for the Bard. This all male touring Shakespearean company out of England does Shakespeare the way it was done in his day - with men playing even the female roles (but not in full drag, they still look like men, only in dresses and with a slightly higher pitch to the voice). Even though I've seen some fantastic Shakespeare productions here in America, there's something about hearing those words come from the mouths of actual British people using their natural accents (or close to it) that makes the language sound more natural. Shakespeare by Brits with men playing all the roles, just like how it was done 400 years ago. But everything else about Propeller's interpretation of Shakespeare is entirely modern - fast pacing, high energy, music, modern colorful costumes. It's some of the best Shakespeare I've seen.

Propeller is stopping at the Guthrie for six weeks as part of their international tour, doing two shows in repertory - the comedies Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night. I love the idea of a repertory company and rarely get a chance to experience it; it's so fascinating to see the same company of actors in two different plays just days apart. Both plays deal with relationships, and are sort of flip sides of the same coin. Twelfth Night is a story of sweet and pure love, of both the romantic and familial variety, while Taming of the Shrew explores a dark and dysfunctional love. Similar yet different, both are thoroughly enjoyable in their own way.

the happy (?) wedding party in Taming of the Shrew
Taming of the Shrew
I won't begin to try to summarize the plot (read Wiki for that). Suffice it to say there are two daughters of a wealthy man, the elder mean and disagreeable (the titular shrew), the younger sweet and lovely. But the younger cannot marry until the elder marries, a hopeless case by all accounts. Until a man named Petruchio comes to town and vows to tame her and make her his wife, leaving the younger sister's suitors free to scheme for her hand. And did I mention all of this happens in a play-within-a-play? A drunken common man named Christopher Sly is tricked into believing that he's a lord and the play is being put on for his benefit. The players begin tentatively with scripts, and then toss them aside and become immersed in the action of the play. The victim of the prank also takes part and plays the role of Petruchio (in a commanding performance by Vince Leigh). He is so awful to Katherine, emotionally and physically abusing her, that it's difficult to watch at times. Dan Wheeler as Katherine heart-breakingly transforms from a headstrong independent woman into a meek and broken thing, all the life drained out of her. When the play-within-a-play is over, Katherine wearily steps out of character, and all the players back away from Petruchio/Christopher Sly, as if he took their little prank too far. That alone makes the depiction of abuse bearable; this silly little tale is an allegory of power taken too far.

the delightful garden scene in Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night:
One of those "or" plays, Twelfth Night; or, What You Will features the disguises and mistaken identities that Shakespeare loved so well. In this case, twins Viola (Joseph Chance) and Sebastian (Dan Wheeler again) are shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria, each believing the other has died and grieving for their beloved sibling. Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario (who looks a lot like Sebastian), and becomes steward to the Duke, who is attempting to woo the fair Olivia (Ben Allen), who is herself grieving the death of her brother. The Duke sends Cesario to woo Olivia for him, and in doing so, Olivia falls in love with Cesario while Cesario/Violet falls in love with the Duke. Then Sebastian reappears, causing much confusion, which is understandable - I had a hard time telling the twins apart with their short blond hair and matching grey suits. As a man playing a woman disguised as a man, Joseph Chance gives us just a hint of Viola's womanly nature underneath her disguise. Ben Allen, who was a comic highlight in Taming of the Shrew as the crazy-costumed servant Biondello, gives a completely different but equally convincing performance here as the grieving woman who falls victim to love despite her best intentions. Leading us through this story is court jester/musician Feste, played by Irishman Liam O'Brien with his lovely brogue (which can also be heard as the servant Tranio in Taming of the Shrew, but disappearing when he transforms into his gentlemanly lord). And once again, the fool is actually the wise man.

I kept hearing about Propeller's "distinctive physical approach," so I was expecting the sort of physical theater that Live Action Set and Transatlantic Love Affair do so well. It wasn't that kind of physicality, in which the actors depict everything in the created world through the use of their bodies, but there were elements of that. The biggest piece of Propeller's physicality is the energy that the entire company gives to their characters, in the way that they move across the stage and interact with each other. Besides that, the physicality in Taming of the Shrew mostly takes the form of punching, but one of the highlights of Twelfth Night is a delightful garden scene in which company members portray everything from birds to statues.

The two shows share the same basic set pieces, with some slight changes of accessories. Two large wardrobes serve as doors to and from various locations, and a large column of drawers can also be tipped on its side to serve as a table. Twelfth Night also features a huge chandelier, and charming little trees for the garden scene.

The costumes create a distinct look for each show. In Taming of the Shrew, company members are dressed for a wedding, although their black tuxes with colorful shirts look more appropriate for a prom (do they have proms in England?). The rest of the costumes are a crazy mix of styles and eras, from Petruchio's cowboy boots and fringed jacket, to the distinguished garb of the lords. In Twelfth Night, company members wear dark suits and gray half masks, as they lurk about in the background of the scene, while the characters are dressed more conservatively and traditionally than in Shrew.

Both shows make great use of music. In Taming of the Shrew it's a sort of funky blues-rock, featuring sax, clarinet, electric guitar, and bass. The music in Twelfth Night is a little more folky, adding acoustic guitar, upright bass, and mandolin. Music is featured a bit more heavily in Twelfth Night, but Taming of the Shrew's second act opens with a clever and disturbing song about marriage. My favorite musical/dance moment is in Twelfth Night, when Gary Shelford's gentlewoman Maria takes center stage for a delightful solo dance. He's one of the tallest men on stage, but makes for a surprisingly graceful woman.

If you enjoy Shakespeare, or even if you don't, I recommend you head to the Guthrie between now and the first week of April to see what Shakespeare can be. If you're able to see both, it's great fun to compare the two and pick out favorites in one or both shows. If you can only see one, you have quite a dilemma on your hands. Twelfth Night is sweeter, with a bit of melancholy, and more music and dance, while Taming of the Shrew is darker. Hopefully I've given you a sense of each so you can decide for yourself, but like Doritos, it might not be possible to stop at just one. I'll leave you with a quote from Propeller Artistic Director and director of both plays, Edward Hall:
I think they make a very interesting match, in part because the idea of disguise revealing truth is relevant to both plays. A lot of disguising goes on in Shrew, which I wanted to do because it's a fascinating play about the power between the sexes, but also because Shakespeare is already exploring ideas about the nature of love that he develops in a much more sophisticated, ambiguous fashion in Twelfth Night. In Illyria, illusion and reality are almost indistinguishable. Dark and delightful, the play asks, "What happens when you fall in love with the wrong person?" and the answer is both beautiful and bittersweet.

Monday, March 4, 2013

"Six Characters in Search of an Author" by Alan Berks & Company at the Gremlin Theatre

I must confess, I'm a reality show junkie. But only the good ones - competition shows like Survivor, The Amazing Race, Project RunwayTop Chef (congratulations Kristen!), American Idol, and Dancing with the Stars (my pick for the new season - Dorothy Hamill and Tristan!). I love these shows, but I'm very aware that they're a heightened and manipulated version of "reality." So when Alan Berks & Company's Six Characters in Search of an Author started out as a clever spoof of a reality show, I was in familiar territory. But soon the play took an unexpected turn into something much darker and deeper, a surreal exploration of reality vs. fiction and the creative process. Not what I was expecting, but a fascinating ride.

Director Alan Berks and his talented company of actors have created a new adaptation of the 1921 Italian play of the same name, in which six people appear during the rehearsal of a play, saying they're characters from an unfinished story, searching for a new author. In this version, the play rehearsal has been replaced by a reality show called The Maze, in which contestants live in a mansion, searching for a key that will lead them to the hidden treasure (a show I might watch). Three contestants remain, with convenient reality show labels (and bearing the actors' real names) - the jerk Sam (Landman, so brilliant in Thom Pain a few months ago), the flirt Rachel (Finch, the highlight of Theatre in the Round's recent Rabbit Hole), and the dude Michael (Terell Brown, a standout in Theatre Coup d'Etat's Angels in America last summer). Along with the weary cameraman Joe (Weiner, who ably handles the camera as we view the footage live) and hotshot young producer Bryan (Porter*), they settle in for another day of trying to make something interesting happen. And boy, does it.

the cast and crew of The Maze
The six characters drop in from a story all their own, fully formed, aching to complete their story but forever stuck within it. There's a stern father (John Middleton), a grieving mother (Colleen Barrett), a neglected son (Max Wojtanowicz*), a rebellious stepdaughter (ShaVunda Horsley), and two young children (creepily represented by white garden statues). To say they're a dysfunctional family is an understatement. They tell their story in pieces, each one interrupting and contradicting the others. Producer Bryan begins to think there's a story here, and agrees to tell it on The Maze. He gets his contestants to act out the scenes, in the house and via confessional (that reality show staple). But the characters are not happy with this depiction, and insist on telling their story to it's final and terrible conclusion.

The use of video in this play is unlike anything I've seen on stage. We see the action play out from the production room in the house, full of cameras, monitors, and wires, with just a bit of the actual house visible through the glass door in the back wall. Two monitors show live feed of the kitchen and entry way, just on the other side of that wall. Another monitor shows either taped footage of other areas of the house (bedrooms, hallways, the pool) or live feed from the camera as Joe films what's going on right in front of us. It's a lot to take in, you're never quite sure where to look, but it shows the audience several different perspectives of what's happening, and adds another layer to that reality/truth conundrum.

Six Characters is a weird, trippy experience, one that's difficult to explain or make sense of. But it sure is fun to try. What is reality? What is fiction? And what lies in between? (Reality shows, and maybe theater too.) It's a really clever new adaptation of a classic play. The cast is so talented (the reality show cast so natural, the "characters" appropriately dramatic) that it's fun to watch them play; the only problem is it's impossible to watch all of them at the same time. Add in the innovative use of video, and you have a unique and entertaining evening at the theater. The Six Characters continue searching for an author at Gremlin Theatre** through March 24. (Discount tickets available on

*I was quite tickled when I realized that this play brings together two Cliffs from Cabaret - Bryan from the recent BCT production, and Max from Frank Theatre's production two years ago.
**Gremlin Theatre is losing their current space on University in St. Paul, and are looking for a new space. They will produce one last show there in June. I'll be sad to see it go. It's a nice space (that also hosted Fringe Festival shows) in an easy location with free parking. But I've really come to appreciate the Gremlin's work, so I'll follow them wherever they go.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

"Courting Harry" at the History Theatre

I have to admit, before seeing the world premiere play Courting Harry at the History Theatre, I was afraid that a play about a couple of Supreme Court Justices would be dry and boring. I was pleased to find out that it's anything but; it's actually an amusing, engaging, entertaining, and yes, educational play. Playwright Lee Blessing has framed the story of Minnesota-raised Harry Blackmun as a conversation between him, his childhood friend and Chief Justice Warren Burger, and the audience. This informal conversational style invites the audience into the lives of these powerful men who helped shape the laws of this country over several decades. Their most famous case is the landmark abortion decision Row v. Wade. Despite the fact that they both voted in the majority, it began a division in their friendship that was never mended. Courting Harry is both a historical play about a 40-year-old case that's still very much debated today, and a very personal story about a lifelong friendship.

Harry Blackmun was a bit of a pack rat - upon his death he left behind over 1500 boxes containing a half a million documents, both personal and professional. The stage at the History Theatre is filled with boxes overflowing huge shelves. Harry (the charming and natural Clyde Lund) begins to tell his story to the audience and is interrupted by Warren (a suitably gruff Nathanial Fuller), a sort of afterlife conversation. Four researchers in white coats (Jamila Anderson, Charlotte Calvert, Sam Pearson, and E.J. Subkoviak) sift through the documents making notes, pulling out pertinent letters and reading from them to support the story. It's very well-choreographed and a clever way to add interest to the story and make it more than just two people talking in an empty room. We meet a few other characters played by the ensemble, including Harry's mother and daughter, and presidents Nixon and Clinton (very entertainingly portrayed by E.J. Subkoviak, who has graduated from playing Nixon's campaign manager last year in 1968 to the man himself). When Harry is appointed to the Supreme Court, everyone puts on a black robe to illustrate that part of the story, with justices coming and going through the years like a game of musical chairs. Remaining constant through it all are Harry and Warren, growing further and further apart, until they, too, move on.

As someone who does not enjoy politics, I'm impressed that playwright Lee Blessing, director Joel Sass (who also designed the simple and stately set, as per usual), and the cast have managed to make a play about politics and the law so engaging and relatable and human. But I shouldn't be surprised; the History Theatre has a knack for telling important stories about Minnesota and American history that entertain as much as they inform. I don't know why I never learned about Harry Blackmun in history or civics class (or maybe I did and I just don't remember), but I know about him now and I won't soon forget, proving once again that everything I know I learned from theater. There is a renewed effort to place a bust of Harry Blackmun in Minnesota's State Capitol, as a famous son of Minnesota who achieved much on the national scene, including being an advocate for women's rights. Contact your local representative if you agree, and head to the History Theatre between now and March 24 to find out more about the life of Minnesota's Supreme Court Justices. I promise, it's much more fun than it sounds. (Discount tickets available on

the cast of Courting Harry at the bench (photo by Scott Pakudaitis)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

"Or," at Park Square Theatre

Or, What a curious title - O-r-comma. Before seeing the regional premiere of this new play by Liz Duffy Adams at Park Square Theatre, I was on board with the concept - a comedy about England's first female playwright - but I couldn't quite figure out how the title fit into that. Fortunately, the play begins with a delightful prologue delivered by its star, the also delightful Emily Gunyou Halaas, explaining the title. Or, is an exploration of opposites, dualities, and the idea that those opposites can coexist. "We all embody opposites within, or else we're frankly too dull to live."

The play is a fictionalized account of real people in late 17th century England - playwright and former spy Aphra Behn, King of England and theater supporter Charles II, and his mistress, the actress Nell Gwyn. This is not the first play I've seen about these characters; last year's Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Walking Shadow also featured Charles II and Nell Gwyn, but focused more on the consequences of Charles allowing women on the stage to play female roles formerly played by young men. But while that play is a pretty dramatic and deep, Or, is pure comedy fluff written in the style of Restoration Comedy, which Wikipedia tells me is "notorious for its sexual explicitness." There certainly is a lot of that in the play, as the three main characters form a relationship that could be called a polyamorous* triad (thank you Shonda Rhimes) - a true love triangle. Charles is Aphra's "keeper," Aphra and Nell are lovers, and then Charles meets Nell. The three live happily ... well, at least for the moment.

the happy threesome
The most fun part of this play is that two of the three actors play three characters each, often in quick succession, exiting one door as one character and moments later entering another door as a different character with a different costume and accent. I bet the backstage view of this play is just as entertaining as the view from the audience. Mo Perry is an absolute scene stealer with all of her characters - the carefree Nell, the stern theater owner Lady Davenant, and especially the loyal servant Maria. Matt Guidry is also great as the powerful and fun-loving king, quickly changing to Aphra's former lover and current spy William Scot, on the run and hiding out in Aphra's room. The one constant through this revolving door of characters is Emily Gunyou Halaas as our heroine-spy-poet Aphra. I always enjoy seeing Emily on stage because of her emotional investment in her characters and the way the scripted words come out of her mouth (she was most recently seen in the wonderful In the Next Room at the Jungle, one of those "or" plays). Her Aphra is smart and strong, poetic (often speaking in rhyme) and pleasure-loving.

The period costumes by Annie Cady are gorgeous, from Nell's smart and boyish pants, to the king's beautiful coat, to Aphra's elaborate dresses. The set by Michael Hoover is simple, spacious, and elegant, with plenty of doors for the actors to disappear behind and make their quick change. Also adding to the period feel is the music played before the show and during scene changes - a sort of chamber music arrangement of Beatles songs.

All in all I found Or, to be very enjoyable. I'm not sure that all of the complexities of plot work, but it's a very fun piece with a great cast, nicely directed by Leah Cooper. A play written by a woman, directed by a woman, and starring a woman is definitely something I can support, especially when it's this good.

Or, from Park Square Theatre on Vimeo.

*See also this recent episode of Our America with Lisa Ling.